'Fresh Off the Boat' Boss on Why She Didn't Want to Do a Traditional Coming Out Story

The showrunner tells THR why introducing a gay Asian character speaks right to "the kind of comedy we do on the show and the kind of feeling we always said we wanted."
ABC

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the "Blind Spot" episode of ABC's Fresh Off the Boat.]

Since its premiere on ABC, Fresh Off the Boat has attracted a diverse audience with its blend of heart and humor — and the fact that the series never treats its characters as "different."

From Jessica Huang (Constance Wu) and Louis (Randall Park) to Eddie (Hudson Yang), Fresh Off the Boat is full of unique and fully formed characters who accept each other for who they are. For showrunner Nahnatchka Khan, creating guest star roles in that same vein is equally important. Enter Oscar (Rex Lee), the gay man Jessica thought she was dating in college, who actually thought he was dating Louis.

Read more Constance Wu: 'Fresh Off the Boat' Will Tip its Hat to 'All-American Girl'

Oscar is an out and proud gay man who is comfortable in his skin — and refreshingly, everyone around him is as well — despite the fact that that Jessica's pride is a little hurt when she realizes she never really was in a relationship with Oscar.

The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Khan to discuss an episode close to her heart and preview what's next as the rookie comedy's freshman season winds down.

In many ways, the idea that Jessica doesn't realize the guy she thought she was dating in college is actually gay says a lot more about her than it does about him. How did that idea even come up?

We always knew that we wanted to bring in Jessica’s ex-boyfriend and that she didn't know that he was gay. Even in the pilot, there was an exchange about it between her and Louis that we had to cut for time. We always thought that would be a funny [area] for Jessica. It evolved as we got a pick-up and talked through it in the writers’ room, and it started to become about her experience with everybody [who was gay]. So, we set it up in a previous episode where she sold a house to a gay couple and thinks they’re best friends. We wanted to set the table for an episode where we bring Oscar to town to use it as a reflection of Jessica’s blind spot — but also Louis’ blind spot. He can’t tell when people are into him. So it created a different kind of love triangle that you haven’t necessarily seen before.

And he also isn't really coming out in a traditional sense. He assumes everyone knows he is gay, and he is just who he is. It's refreshing to see a character like Oscar on television at any time, but especially for a someone living in the '90s.

Exactly. He’s completely comfortable with who he is. It’s not a coming out story; he assumes everyone knows, and he’s surprised that Jessica doesn’t. We made that choice because we’ve seen a lot of versions of the coming out story, and we’ve also seen a lot of people not accept it when people they know come out as gay — or it takes them a long time. We wanted to jump that. What if that’s not the issue? What if we look at this gay character coming into the Huang family as more of a reflection on them? There was a really important scene with Louis [where] Oscar [was] saying, “I see what you and Jessica have, and I want that for myself someday.” Then for Louis to be completely supportive when he says, “He’s out there. You’re going to find him. "It was inclusive. And I think that goes to the kind of comedy we do on the show [in general] and the kind of feeling we always said we wanted to do with this show.

What was the discussion around showing how the general Asian-American community looked at a character like Oscar, especially in that time period, and did you draw from your own experiences?

David Smithyman, who wrote this episode, is also gay, and he and I and the rest of the writers never approached it [like that]. We made a conscience choice to go away from some of that typical story and look at it from another angle. We wanted to ask how it reflects on Louis and Jessica as a couple while also getting Oscar’s opinion in there. Oscar is who he is. The gay aspect is not the focus in terms of its own entity; it’s just accepted. The Huangs are very loving and very accepting in their own way, and maybe because they’re having a hard time adjusting and they’re being judged on many levels, they check that. It’s not a part of how they react to things — certainly not to someone they’ve known for their whole adult lives. A lot of people probably wish they were more accepted back then for who they were, or wished they had the courage to be who they were the way Oscar does. I remember in the '90s meeting my first out gay friends and just being so impressed by them and respecting their choices — feeling like, “Wow, they’re not afraid to be who they are." There’s always those leaders. Even before the '90s, there were people who said, “Here’s who I am, and not everybody’s going to like it, but I make no apologies." And that is what our show is about. We’re not trying to represent every experience; we’re not trying to represent every person. We’re telling one story, specifically in this episode, and we’re not apologizing for it.

Read more 'Fresh Off the Boat' Showrunner on Working With Eddie Huang, Going Beyond Race

As mentioned earlier, this episode showed some new facets of both Louis and Jessica, who for a large part of the season haven't intersected in many of the stories. How was it developing them individually, as well as as a couple?

The first episode you see them really working together as a unit was “Success Perm,” when they have their family come to visit, and that, to us, is so relatable because nothing bonds you like trying to impress your family; you’ll do whatever it takes! It was an early episode, and it was great to get to write the characters on the same page, wanting the same thing. That opened a lot of different avenues for us. Louis has moved his entire family [to Orlando] for this restaurant that’s not all that successful, so he’s on that track, and he’s got to make it work; there’s no option to fail. And Jessica wants the same thing, but she has to find a new place. In an early episode, she tries to get involved in his business and sort of micro-manages everything to death, and he kicks her out of that a little bit, which leads her down another path with the real estate thing. We were really just trying to follow the characters and see where they led us and what were the most interesting versions of them. And it wasn't just about real estate [for Jessica] but how she comes to it: the fact that she goes to open houses for free A/C and accidentally sells a house.

Despite critical praise, the series remains on the bubble. Did you write the season finale to double as a series finale?

You never know how many chances you’re going to get to tell stories. We had 13 episodes, and if that’s all we got to do, we wanted to tell the story of this family and the evolution of all of the characters. We really looked at it as going back to the first episode and putting up all the characters that we’ve met throughout the course of this season on the board — even Nicole [Luna Blaise] next door, Honey [Chelsey Crisp] and Marvin [Ray Wise], the principal at the school [David Goldman], people at the restaurant. We went through — character by character — to see where we wanted to leave things for everybody. Eventually, we came up with a really cool way to have the Huang story feel not wrapped up, but still paying off a lot of stuff that we set up at the beginning. At the same time, we still left the door open for what could happen in a second season. We wanted to make it feel satisfying for people who were watching, knowing we had a 13 episodes for sure. So in these latter episodes we’re going to see stories that are very specific to their culture, but also very universal stories about them figuring it out in terms of really making their place in the wider world.

Fresh Off the Boat airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on ABC. What did you think of Oscar? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Twitter: @danielletbd

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